Heaven Descends On New Haven

For reasons personal, professional, and recreational, I often feel I am the most fortunate man on earth.  If the experience that gives me the feeling is aesthetic, likely it happened at Yale.  I felt that way last Friday evening at St. Joseph Church on Edwards Street, where the Yale Schola Cantorum performed Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers to a packed and rapt house.

Ninety minutes of 400-year-old liturgical music might not sound like a lively evening, but Monteverdi provided a piece rich in contrasts, and conductor David Hill took every advantage of his opportunities and his lavishly-talented performers.  When invited by the score, he disbursed his forces imaginatively around the church, creating dialogues across space between singers and instrumentalists, and haunting echo effects with distant voices.

Hill also found rhythmic interest at many points, not swift so much as lilting, with a revelatory dance-like quality I would not have imagined in this music.  There was a swing at times (in the Laudate pueri and the Lauda Ierusalem sections, for instance) that — along with the highlighting of unusual harmonies — suggested music of much more recent vintage.

With all credit to both composer and conductor, the voices of the young soloists and the chorus were the glory of the performance.  Monteverdi gives great opportunity for vocal display, and the singers seized on it, above all in the duets so suggestive of love songs, especially Pulchra es, which ended with a passage that made time stand still.

As much enjoyment as I’ve had from recorded music, there is no substitute for live and unamplified sound.  It is the human voice above all which demands direct experience for full appreciation.  The intervention of microphone and amplifier diminishes the difference between singers; the true force of diaphragm and lungs which connects artist to audience on an organic stream of air must be felt in the flesh, as it was last Friday night.

Another priceless event of a very different sort can be expected in Woolsey Hall this Friday, April 29, beginning at 7:30 pm.  The Philharmonia Orchestra, which consists of graduate students at the Yale School of Music, will perform a heavenly program, consisting of The Planets by Gustav Holst and the Jupiter symphony by Mozart.

The latter was given its name by a publisher after Mozart’s death; the moniker stuck, thanks to the majestic yet supremely-balanced nature of the piece, the composer’s last symphony and his grandest effort in that form.  It demands clarity and precision in performance; the reward is irresistible momentum and—especially in the fugue which concludes the final movement—overwhelming power.

Holst’s Planets belongs to a different sound-world, appealing to the contemporary ear and familiar to fans of Star Wars.  Each of the planets known when the piece was composed a hundred years ago (with the exception of Earth) is depicted according to its astrological character.
Surely the setting for Mars helped John Williams find his sound for the Evil Empire; the Jupiter sketch contains a most noble melody which has found its way into hymn books.  The soft closing of the final sketch, Neptune, with its off-stage chorus fading to inaudibility, is especially memorable.

The seven-movement suite, which runs about fifty minutes, is among the most popular 20th century classical compositions.  The variety of sound and pace, and the expert and colorful orchestration, make it a particular pleasure to hear and see performed live.  The orchestra’s new principal conductor, Peter Oundjian, has the group playing superbly, especially in colorful modern works like this.

For those unfamiliar with a symphony orchestra, the far ends of the first balcony, which sit right over the sides of the stage, offer a fascinating view.  Those more interested in listening than looking will do better in the second balcony, where the bright hall blends and concentrates the sounds of the orchestra.  The Philharmonia is no longer a free event, but seating remains open, and the very reasonably tickets can be purchased at a discount on-line.

The chance for a memorable evening comes around regularly In New Haven; if you missed last Friday, this Friday may be your next sure bet.

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